Jack White – ‘Lazaretto’

Black humour, heavy rock and hints at a troubled personal life on a varied and eccentric second solo album

Jack White has always crammed his music and lyrics with riddles and red herrings, and it’s helped make him a continually interesting artist. It’s no different with ‘Lazaretto’, a second solo album that’s as musically eccentric and original as its predecessor, ‘Blunderbuss’, covering rock, soul, funk, country, folk and bar-room blues, sometimes within the same track. He says the songs are adapted from plays and short stories that he penned when he was 19 and, if you run with that theme, ‘Alone In My Home’ becomes a stompier version of The Beach Boys’ ‘In My Room’ – pure teenage self-effacement. But who’s to say that lyrics like, “I’m becoming a ghost /So nobody can know me,” aren’t telling of White in 2014, especially in light of what’s been happening in his private life?

A lazaretto is a hospital or ship that quarantines people affected with contagious diseases, and there might be some very black humour in White using the word as the title of his album. His recent press has been mixed – during their divorce settlement, Karen Elson took out a restraining order against her ex-husband and leaked emails revealed a petty rivalry with his neighbours in Nashville, The Black Keys – and Jack clearly feels wronged. “They threw me down in a lazaretto / Born rotten, bored rotten”, he sings on the title track, a pounding funk workout that ends, as ‘That Black Bat Licorice’ does, with a fiddle solo. It’s an extraordinary song and, although White always says the characters in his music are exactly that – characters – he specifically names himself in ‘Lazaretto’, which ends with guns blazing: “And like the dough, I don’t fall down/I’m so Detroit I make it rise from the ashes”.

Such brazen, unrepentant self-belief fires the album. The first track, ‘Three Women’, is a country soul adaptation of ‘Three Women Blues’, the 1928 song by Blind Willie McTell: “I’ve got three women / Red, blonde and brunette.” You expect a twist when White sings, “And I know what you’re thinking/What gives me the right?”, but instead he fires back with, “But what gives YOU the right?/Well, these women must be /Getting something/’Cause they come and see me /Every night”. It’s a troubling song for a man who’s been accused of having a problem with women to begin an album with – and possibly the blackest joke on the record – but he tempers his sense of entitlement elsewhere, particularly on a straight country ballad actually called ‘Entitlement’, which finds him singing, “We don’t deserve a single damn thing”. You can decide for yourself whether he really means it.

White sometimes slips into allegory, using imagery such as creatures on “a floating lily island” (‘Temporary Ground’) and birds sitting on a windowsill (‘I Found A Culprit’) as the basis of songs that, frankly, could mean anything, and there’s one track, ‘High Ball Stepper’, where he forgoes words altogether to create a blazing slab of heavy rock. It’s the most thunderous song on a varied album that lacks any monster riffs like the ones White used to write for The White Stripes, but includes enough intrigue, originality and plain weirdness to delight and, in some places, appal.

Phil Hebblethwaite